I’ve asked fellow teachers, and certainly wrestled myself with the following question: How much as a teacher of God’s Word do you introduce others to the complexity, debates, and depth of Christianity?
Teachers should seek to edify and equip. American Christians have a decidedly anti-intellectual bent coupled with an allergy to complexity. How much does a teacher push back on those by introducing topics that cause people to be uncomfortable with how flimsy their beliefs may be?
In controversies like this one there is a common error, it seems to me, that is made. Here is what I posted in response to Heath Lambert’s mea culpa:
Thanks for your mea culpa.
One quick observation: It is common for preachers (and others) to critique someone with no mention given of the person’s name. This, however, is not a problem merely because we live in a digital age where the information can be easily found from a search. It is intrinsically wrong. Either say the person’s name or don’t quote them.
So your apology is appreciated, but I’m afraid you run afoul of describing the gaffe as wrong because of being in a media-soaked culture. It is not instrumentally wrong. It is intrinsically wrong.
Most of us debate poorly. There are a number of factors like not knowing what we believe as well as we should, presenting a caricature of an opposing position, and even if we don’t err with those two, we tend to get testy! My number one resource for making improvement is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I wish every American would read and ponder this seminal book.
Controversy brings out the best and worst of us. Sadly, it does more of the latter. Since Americans have a tendency towards superficial understanding and a tendency to believe someone is attacking us when they disagree with our viewpoint, it adds a further impediment to productive disagreements.
Paul Griffiths, who recently resigned from Duke Divinity articulated sharp disagreement with a training program to increase understanding of racism. I’m not sure Professor Griffiths conveyed his concerns in the wisest way (he has said as much), but there is an important lesson for all of us: sharp disagreements can be very productive. Here are some of Professor Griffiths reflections:
Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our élite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.
For me, the sky-flower has fallen to the ground, its petals scattered but bearing still the beauty of a remembered reverie. I bear responsibility, of course: my class, my intellectual formation in the snidely and aggressively English dialectic of debate, my eye-to-the-main-chance polemical temperament, and no doubt other deep and damaged traits of which I’m scarcely aware, all had their part to play in bringing the sky-flower to earth.
Interview with the eminent philosopher, Martha Nussbaum:
Name a writer or publication you disagree with but still read.
This strikes me as the most hilarious question, given that I’m a philosopher. Philosophy is all about respectful disagreement, and learning from disagreement. No decent philosopher simply parrots some other philosopher, so there must be disagreements somewhere in every case.
I disagree less with J.S. Mill than with any other major philosopher, but I still disagree with Mill a good deal. Aristotle is insightful on some matters, not so insightful on others. As for Plato, Kant, Bentham, Sidgwick, and Rawls, my disagreements are larger, but still compatible with thinking that in some very major ways they were on the right track. I would not say that about Lord Devlin or James Fitzjames Stephen, but I still teach both, in order to learn from their arguments.
If I didn’t disagree with a philosopher it would hardly be worth engaging with him or her, because there would be nothing to learn.
There is an irony of sorts with the quote below. Greg Boyd, who mentioned it on his Twitter account, is a pastor and scholar. He holds to Open Theism, a position, I do not. Boyd wrote a terrific book called The Myth of a Christian Nation. I recommend it highly.
Lesson: All of us must be careful to listen and learn from others, even when we are predisposed to write them off.
The comment below is to a friend about one of his friends. It is easy to know what the friend of my friend doesn’t believe (it includes some of the silliness I don’t believe), but tough to know what he believes. Here’s the analogy I came up with:
At the end of it all I scratch my head every time wondering what he still believes. He states various presuppositions, but it seems he holds to a faith so tentative that it is difficult to see any scandal of the cross. Lots of bad meat is sliced off the theological turkey, but it seems we won’t be eating any meat at his house. Instead, it looks like he is only keen on using the carcass for spiritual soup.